This is the 2012-13 Mentor-Mentee Project developed by Darek Benesh, assistant professor of English.

Instruction and Goals

Tom Ernster and I are both interested in the concept of visual rhetoric, and we both include visual rhetoric units in our classes.  Tom has a unit in his Comp I classes in which students design a visual persuasive piece based on polemics they have written and then write about how it intends to be persuasive and effective to its intended audience.  In my Comp II class, I have an extended emphasis on visual rhetoric.  During the first half of the semester, for example,  students analyze how different people groups are represented in popular media and what the implications of those representations are for how society perceives those groups.  Tom’s class focuses on the design and creation of a piece of visual rhetoric based on the students’ polemics, and my class focuses on the analysis of preexisting representations.  We believed it would be helpful for both of us to share our instructional units, lessons, and philosophies, so that we can think about ways to enhance our own instruction of these classes.  I was interested, for example, in how I might include a way for students to create their own visual representation as a means of analysis.  Tom and I shared our instructional units, and we also observed each other’s classes, to gain knowledge and offer feedback.  The product of this mentor/mentee project is a reflection on what we gained and how we envision including new lessons and strategies in our classes.

Tom’s Comp I

Tom has students write polemics on topics of their own choosing.  Once these polemics are written, revised, and assessed, the students are required to produce a visual slide or sequence of slides which conveys the same message as their polemic.  I observed Tom’s class the day the students’ slides were workshopped.  Students’ classmates, as well as Tom, gave each student feedback.  Tom emphasized the following principles of visual rhetoric: Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, Proximity.  The students needed to incorporate a consideration of these elements into their slide, and therefore, during the workshop day, the students needed to speak about and justify how each element was considered.  Students were given the opportunity to revise their slide image in light of peer and teacher feedback.  However, the slide itself was not graded.  The students were required to write a visual rhetorical analysis of their own slide image.  This was their next assignment.

Darek’s Comp II


In the first half of the semester in Comp II, I move students from a consideration of objective versus subjective truth (via the film The Thin Blue Line about a man wrongly convicted of murder based on faulty evidence and testimony) into a consideration of image and representation.  I’m especially concerned with having students consider the power that representation has on our perceptions of those we deem different from us.  One of the people groups we consider is Native Americans.  We watch the film Reel Injun, which is about traditional film and cultural representations of Native Americans through the decades.  Tom observed the class in which I attempted to tie the visual techniques of what we had considered and looked at previously with the techniques of Reel Injun in terms of pathos, ethos, logos, and mythos appeals.  In the film medium, I emphasize a consideration of these elements or concepts: Image, Color, Manipulation, Scene, Construction, Sequence, Editing, Zoom, Music, Narrative, Character, Comparison, Contrast, Juxtaposition.  One scene specifically we looked at in the film was the scene in which a class of Native American school children on a reservation is shown a scene from a film depicting the massacre at Wounded Knee.  The US cavalry are depicted as heroes with much fanfare as scene after scene goes by of dying Native Americans.  The point the film is trying to make is that the movie scene would look quite different to a Native American than to a Non-Native American.  I had the students talk about what the primary rhetorical appeal was in that scene, and they decided it was pathos (the appeal to emotion).  Then I asked them to break down the scene in terms of its component parts.  How is it constructed to accomplish this effect?  What do we see?  Hear?  How is the scene edited, contrived, presented, manipulated in a way to enhance this effect?  For many in the class, this is the first time that they realize that the scene (and films in general) are constructed through multiple images, put into sequence, edited, and combined with music, etc.  The scene may be valid and accomplish a noble aim (which it does), but it also has an agenda (in the non-political sense); it sets out to do something.  The point of exercises of this type is to reveal to students that representations have power to shape perceptions/thoughts, and also to reveal that films and images actively and intentionally are arguments.

Conclusion and Applications

Tom liked the emphasis on analyzing existing media (image and film), and he liked how I engaged with concepts which have a direct application to shaping student writing.  That is, he liked how we analyzed the component parts of an image, a scene, or a film as if it were a piece of writing making an argument.  The component parts of the analysis, in this case, then, had direct applicability to students’ writing of arguments.  He said he would try to incorporate this application into the class when he teaches it again.  I liked the idea of the students creating their own composite images that reflected their arguments and the aspect of workshopping an image that the students created.  The next time I teach Comp II, I will include a lesson on creating a visual polemic (probably in groups) and then workshopping them in class.  I will also include options on both big essays for students to complement their essays with an image they create to further their arguments.  A further application for me is that I would like to revise my curriculum for Comp I for next Fall.  I can see great value in using Tom’s methodology and assignment as part of my reimagining.

Going Forward

It will be interesting to meet with Tom after we have both taught these classes again to see how we have changed the way we teach, and more importantly to get a sense for how student learning is positively impacted.

4 thoughts on “Sharing Ideas on Incorporating Visual Rhetoric into Composition Instruction

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